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Voting Amid Violence

The Brutal Struggle for Power in Veracruz’s Poorest Municipality

Miguel Ángel León Carmona

This essay is part of the Voting Amid Violence project.

Gonzalo Zopiyactle could not shake the premonition. The last days of his life, he steadied his nerves with a barrage of aguardiente, trying to control the fear. He asked his friends to join him, but they avoided their regular cantinas. The gatherings were private, and in small restaurants.

On Monday, March 29, 2021, Zopiyactle and some friends left home for a restaurant some 50 kilometers away in the community of Jalapilla. It was a simple, discreet venue, near a soccer field. His enemies found him regardless.

Zopiyactle, a politician affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was the former mayor of Mixtla de Altamirano—the poorest municipality in Veracruz and the 10th poorest in all of Mexico.

He told his friends that he had recently received threatening phone calls. “Give us your son-in-law, or there will be problems,” the voices told him. “I can’t,” Zopiyactle replied, “please understand, he’s my daughter’s husband.” And that was it. An ominous silence that frightened him.

That Monday afternoon, the former mayor was several drinks deep, enjoying the restaurant’s ranchera music with his friends when a group of armed men arrived at the door and asked for him by name. He tried to negotiate with them, but to no avail. He was forced into a truck and taken away.

Four days passed, and on April 2, his family was notified of his death. Of the 10 politicians who have been murdered in Veracruz during the current electoral process, which began in September, 2020, Zopiyactle’s killing was the most savage.

His body was completely dismembered by his murderers, who severed his head, hands, and limbs, before depositing them on the outskirts of the nearby town of Zongolica, close to a security checkpoint.

Next to the body, the killers left black plastic bags with a message naming two store owners; a teacher; the name of Juan Carlos Mezhua Campos—the current mayor of Zongolica; and the nickname of Zopiyactle’s son-in-law, Gerardo “El Sierra.”

The former mayor’s political group was the PRI’s choice to govern Mixtla de Altamirano. He had, himself, launched a bid to again serve as mayor, but withdrew after the party decided that the candidate should be a woman, in order to fulfill gender quota rules.

“He would have held power regardless, just from behind the throne,” his colleagues said. And that was true: the only PRI candidate was Francisca Morales, Zopiyactle’s wife. She worked in the home and had never held public office. And after her husband’s killing, the threats continued and Morales abandoned the race.

“Those bastards didn’t quit, they wanted the son-in-law at any cost,” said a friend of the family, who asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.

Francisca Morales confirmed her decision to withdraw via text message. She said she did not want to do any interviews, or have any further contact with politics. With guarded words, she admitted that she is afraid for her safety, and that of her family, and that she hopes for justice for her husband.

Mexico’s federal government acknowledges that Veracruz has been one of the country’s most violent states during this electoral process. According to security minister Rosa Icela Rodríguez, seven entities have accumulated 53.76 percent of all attacks on candidates. Of those, 47 occurred in Oaxaca, 37 in San Luis Potosí, 28 in Jalisco, 27 each in Mexico State and Veracruz, 25 in Tamaulipas, and 23 in Guerrero.

Organizations that track political violence in Mexico such as Etellekt rank Veracruz as the most lethal place in the country for politicians, with fourteen killings—four more than other counts. Of those, eight were candidates or pre-candidates for the June 6, 2021 elections.

Two factors make Zopiyactle’s killing stand out. First, his party—the PRI—has had two other candidates killed, with only Morena having more with four victims, and the PAN and PRD having two and one, respectively.

Additionally, the región of Las Altas Montañas, specifically the Sierra de Zongolica, is the most violent in the state, with four of the 10 registered political assassinations occurring there:

  • On December 13, 2020, Domingo Panzo Tecpile, the former mayor of Tehuipango for the PAN, was shot at a store; he died in the hospital. Panzo was the alternate local congressperson for the district including Zongolica, and he was planning to run for reelection in 2021.

  • On March 4, 2021, José Melquiades Vázquez Lucas, the former mayor of La Perla for the PRI, was gunned down near the municipal offices in Mariano Escobedo. His son, José Mauro Vázquez Gallardo, had been kidnapped and murdered in September, 2020. His body was found with messages attributing the killing to a criminal group.

  • On March 31, 2021, María Guadalupe Reyes, the former leader of the PAN in Astacinga, was shot and later died in the hospital. In February of 202 four of her relatives had been killed in their home.

Political Bosses and Drug Traffickers

Mixtla de Altamirano is an indigenous municipality with 12,000 inhabitants, nestled high in the mountains (1,650 meters above sea level) and for decades it has been among the most marginalized places I the country.

According to the National Council on Social Development Policy (Coneval), Mixtla is the poorest of Veracruz’s 212 municipalities. The numbers underscore the extent of the problem: four out of 10 residents are illiterate, three out of 10 houses have dirt floors, and seven of 10 have no plumbing or drainage; 5.5% of families do not have a toilet. Only 1.3% of households have a washing machine.

Prior to 2013, Mixtla was governed for 84 uninterrupted years by the PRI. In that time, not a single woman governed the municipality. Over the years, these politicians established local fiefdoms, cacicazgos, lured by the prospect of controlling annual budgets that reached nearly 70 million pesos (approximately 3.5 million dollars), a sum intended to reduce levels of poverty.

One of these political groups centered around Gonzalo Zopiyactle, whose father, Pedro Colohua Tepole, had twice served as mayor. Zopiyactle’s plans to return to power in 2022 through his wife were complicated, however, by another family member: his son-in-law, Gerardo R.H.

Friends of the former mayor claim that Gerardo is also known as “El Sierra” or “Comandante Sierra,” and leads a criminal group that operates in Zongolica, where it engages in kidnapping, murders, drug trafficking, and oil theft.

On three occasions armed men attempted to kidnap Gerardo, according to authorities and sources, and on December 29, 2020 he was attacked. In that incident, he was shot six times while driving a dump truck on the highway, but survived.

“We’re talking about someone who is impetuous and reckless. Gerardo was involved in oil theft and other drug issues, obviously with criminal groups, and they say he got out of hand, that he crossed the line. Two times they tried to kidnap him, but he’s a tough bastard and he fought back,” a source confides.

Gonzalo Zopiyactle’s friends recount that on occasion, Gerardo had joined the former mayor and his wife at her campaign events. Nevertheless, they vehemently deny that Zopiyactle had direct contact with organized crime. “The only thing I can say about him is that he liked to drink. He was a good guy, always very friendly.”

His PRI colleagues concurred. “Gonzalo could start drinking at eight in the morning, but would never slack on his work when he was mayor. He was a quarterback. He coordinated everything, subsidies, supervising projects, all of it,” says Ramón Reyes, the head of communication for the PRI in the state.

Francisca Morales’s campaign is emblematic of another phenomenon in the region. Many of the women who appear on the ballot are, in reality, figureheads for others—typically male relatives or other political leaders.

Morales is a cautious and reserved woman. When Zopiyactle would hold meetings at their house, she would stay in the kitchen, preparing coffee and meals, and her husband would bring the food out to the guests. He was a cacique, a political boss, and that sort of attitude has no color or party affiliation.

“When we would go to their house, she would greet us and return to the kitchen. She was totally capable of campaigning and giving speeches, but her husband was going to prepare it all,” friends said.

Morales was not an isolated case. Journalist Isabel Ortega has documented that of the 43 candidates in Veracruz’s five poorest municipalities, 60 percent are women. “Using the gender parity rules, the parties designate a majority of women as candidates in highly marginalized municipalities, where public resources are scarce,” Ortega writes. Four of these municipalities are in the Sierra de Zongolica.

Morales’s life has now spun 180 degrees following the murder of her husband. Few friends attended his funeral, not because of COVID-19, but out of fear that armed men would attack the ceremony.

The Brutal Struggle for Power in Veracruz’s Poorest Municipality

Photo: Félix Márquez

Women: The Victims of Political Feuds

On July, 9, 2019, the Veracruz state congress dissolved the government in Mixtla de Altamirano and placed a committee in charge of governing the municipality, after the mayor, 27 year-old Marisela Vallejo Orea, was murdered. Vallejo, who represented Morena, had been ambushed on the highway and killed along with her husband and driver.

Two people have been arrested for the attack: Vallejo’s predecessor, María Angélica Méndez Margarito, and her husband, Ricardo Pérez, who was a councilman in Vallejo’s administration. The pair is currently in jail awaiting sentencing.

Marisela Vallejo’s story is not that different from that of Francisca Morales. Vallejo had studied engineering and owned a clothing store in Zongolica. During the 2016 campaigns, she approached the political group of Angélica Méndez and Ricardo Pérez, who invited her to become their assistant.

Three days after Vallejo was murdered, a recording was leaked, in which Vallejo recounts how Ricardo Pérez had asked her to serve as a figurehead candidate affiliated with Morena, since the party had decided that it would nominate a woman. Méndez’s party—the PAN—had also decided to nominate a woman.

Like Morales, Vallejo had been on the margins of politics. As she says in on the tape, “I went to all the meetings, but I was just there to help out, bring water, that sort of stuff. I never talked.”

The plan, apparently, had been that Pérez would succeed his wife in office when her term ended in 2018. He had pursued the PAN’s nomination, but failed to garner support. As a result, he approached Morena, which was participating in its first municipal elections in the state. And while Morena would not give Pérez what he sought, it gladly offered the nomination to a woman of his choosing.

The deal was simple, Vallejo recalled. After taking office, she would find any pretext to resign, as would the alternate mayor, a series of events that would automatically elevate Ricardo Pérez to power, as he was next in line as councilman.

The 27-year-old won easily on election day. Nevertheless, once in office, relatives and leaders of other political groups—among them Gonzalo Zopiyactle—convinced her to break the agreement. “The mayorship is yours, nobody can take it from you,” they told her, and her resignation never came. After a year and four months in office, she was murdered.

In the recording, which was released by La Silla Rota, Vallejo recounted how Pérez had threatened her from the very first day of her term: “I remember how they would come into the office and say, ‘I hope you never betray us, I hope you never betray me… and if you do betray me, the truth is… I can’t tell you what happen, but I hope it never comes to that.’”

Those threats underscore the sad reality of Mixtla de Altamirano. These stories are inseparable from the political landscape of Veracruz’s poorest municipality, a place where the struggle for power has a brutal toll. No fewer than five politicians in this single municipality have been caught up in the violence, as perpetrators or victims: Angélica Méndez and Ricardo Pérez are in jail, Francisca Morales lives in fear, and Gonzalo Zopiyactle and Marisela Vallejo are dead. And the struggle for power continues.

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Miguel Ángel León Carmona is a journalist based in Xalapa, Veracruz focusing on organized crime and human rights. His work is regularly published by E-Consulta Veracruz and LSR Veracruz.

Voting Amid Violence

Voting Amid Violence is a project of the Mexico Violence Resource Project. It has received support from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. To download a PDF mini-book of the essays, click here. For more information about the Mexico Violence Resource Project, visit our About page by clicking here.

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